One day when my kitchen counter was uncharacteristically clean and the dinner hour was quickly approaching, I posed a question to my Instagram friends: Should I follow through on my dinner plan and cook Sticky Orange Chicken (and thus keep my kitchen clean), or should I take the easy way out and serve cereal instead?
“Cereal!” the people cried. “Give yourself a break, lady!” they screamed.
I was so far beyond exhausted that the idea of serving cereal for dinner actually sounded appealing. Talk about easy clean up. But after taking a few minutes to consider, I decided to cook the chicken anyway.
I felt pretty bratty as I zested an orange that evening, fully ignoring the call to give myself a break. I swear I heard my Insta-friends shouting, “Show off!” as I ignored their advice. Truth be told, cereal doesn’t really do it for me. I needed real food, you know? And what I really wanted was Chinese take out, or pizza delivered straight to my door, or for Joey to come home from with a bag of sloppy burgers and crispy fries–anything that would keep the kitchen clean by minimizing clean up. But those options don’t simplify dinner. If anything, they complicate it even more than homecooked allergy-friendly food.
I wanted easy, but my people needed to eat. So off to cook chicken I trudged, bad attitude in tow.
As I diced up chicken and dredged it in starch, I thought about all the women who lived on this prairie long before I did–how did they feel about having to do dinner after a long days’ work? Did they cook up cornbread and beans with a chip on their shoulder? (Probably sometimes.) But they did it anyway because if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. Take out wasn’t a thing for them. Their idea of fast food was hard tack or dried buffalo meat.
Oof. Sautéing scallions and fresh garlic in my cushy kitchen suddenly felt luxurious.
My frustration flipped to thanksgiving in that moment of clarity. I had a well-stocked pantry with fresh, flavorful food. I have an indoor stove and a real-deal dishwasher that help lighten my dinnertime load. I have little hands learning to pitch in, and a husband who says my homecooked food is better than take out, anyway.
I saw my blessings more clearly that night. Whisking together fresh orange juice and coconut aminos is an extravagance that generations of prairie people before me couldn’t have dreamed up. My perennial nightly chore went from burden to blessing in an instant, and all my pent-up dinnertime stress melted away. Cooking felt industrious; crying about it felt indolent.
Did I still wish take out was an option? Well, sure, because I’m not a pioneer woman, and it hurts to watch the pizza delivery man deliver dinner to my neighbors and not me. But is my family better fed by the work of my hands? You bet, in more ways than one.
Food allergy life is physically demanding, emotionally exhausting and mentally taxing. Every upside-down kitchen is. Whether it’s an allergy or an intolerance or an autoimmune disease that renders some foods fundamentally off the table, unconventional food life places so much extra squarely on our shoulders, and it overwhelms us. Living in a time and place where convenience convinces us we deserve to take a break doesn’t help either. But when I get to that frazzled place where opting out of responsibility sounds better than orange chicken, I remind myself how easy I have it. Dinner could be corncakes and beans cooked an open fire every night, you know?
And ok, perhaps it’s not fair to compare my cushy kitchen to pioneer life. They didn’t have food allergies to deal with (did they?). But they didn’t have electricity either, so you know–perspective. And honestly? My orange chicken isn’t even hard. It’s my heart that tends to be.
You are the sweetest, most thoughtful man alive. When challenging days threaten to push me over the edge of insanity (and steal my kitchen mojo in the process), you offer to rescue me by bringing home take out. (Or maybe it’s you that’s saved, because let’s face it: walking through the door with take out in hand saves my sanity and saves you from bearing the brunt of my bad day. You’re an automatic hero.)
Lately I’ve been declining the offer, and no, it’s not because my days are any less frazzled than they have been lately. On the contrary, they’ve been just as harried and frustrating as ever, and I imagine they probably will be for the foreseeable future. Here’s the thing: I just don’t trust take out–not right now, at least.
Since my body was ravaged by gluten over the past several months, even the tiniest bit of it sends my body reeling, and I have to press the reset button again and again and again. The timing couldn’t have been worse, really: keeping a house clean enough to show to potential buyers on a whim is pretty much impossible when you have to still, you know, live in the house (and cook in the house). Between staging and photography; showings and open houses; inspections and more inspections, the stove sat idly by while we took the Goobies out to eat so many times they started whining about it. “A restaurant? Again?”
More often than not, neither of us ate a thing, opting to eat hummus and veggies or sheet pan nachos after the kids were in bed because actually getting food into our own mouths while cajoling the kids to eat makes exactly zero sense, not to mention the fact that trying to decipher menus requires fluency in a language we are both still trying to learn. It’s hard being a food allergy family. When the five of us go out to eat, we have no fewer than eight foods to avoid, and while Mia’s peanut and pine nut allergy has become increasingly easier to manage; avoiding dairy and casein is trickier, but possible; and gluten becomes harder and harder to weed out.
Even so, the allergen information and gluten free menus at our go-to places have worked well enough for us, mainly because we’ve gotten used to what is safe and what isn’t so safe for each of us individually. Over time, and without a definitive positive result for Celiac Disease, I grew a little lax with my standards for gluten free fare in restaurants–mostly because a girl’s still got to stay sane, right? (And people “out there” keep reassuring me that people with a mere gluten sensitivity don’t have to be quite as strict about adhering to gluten free fare.) The gluten free items were gluten free enough for me, until suddenly, after the vitamin incident, they weren’t anymore. The tiniest speck of the stuff throws my body into an uproar now, maybe because I’m still healing, and maybe because after being gluten free for so long, reactions are easier and more contamination I did the only I knew to do, of course: speak up. Ask questions. Dig a little deeper. Be particular. Don’t take labels at face value, but look them in the eye, challenging them to prove it. In the process, I found answers that both disturbed and angered me.
Like that afternoon we took the Goobies to a favorite Mexican spot for lunch. I felt ok enough about going there. We’ve eaten there before and the menu clearly states that most items on the menu are gluten free, but if in doubt, ask the server for more information. Not taking any chances, I chose three “gluten free” items and asked our server about them. After he told me the chicken in the first two dishes had been marinated in beer, I didn’t even want to hear about the third. I stopped him, pointed at the gluten free note, and tried my best to calmly help him understand that the note is misleading, and dishes labeled gluten freearen’t gluten free if they’ve been marinated in beer.
The server got defensive, of course, saying that the chicken can be substituted with something else that is gluten free, and I do understand special markings indicating which dishes can be modified to be gluten free. Here’s the thing: That’s what should be captured in the note (“The items marked GF can be modified to be gluten free. Please ask your server for details.”) As it stands, the note about gluten free menu items means absolutely nothing at all. From that point on, I trusted not one more word out of his mouth. I may have skipped lunch that day, but I learned two valuable lessons: 1) Always ask for clarification, on everything, every time; and 2) Emery is a salsa fiend. Both are equally good to know.)
Sensitive is such a soft word, and saying I have a “gluten sensitivity” makes me feel like I sound like a wimp. People like me are gluten averse, gluten antipathetic–not sensitive, for crying out loud. (And while we’re on the subject, restaurants with a “Gluten Friendly” menu just don’t get it, do they? Talk about a misnomer.) Menus like that just aren’t all that helpful anyway, especially when accompanied by a note that clearly states “Food in this kitchen is exposed to cross contamination. Not recommended for people with Celiac Disease or Gluten Sensitivity.”
This matters because cross contamination is a thing. It is very real. I know how nutty it sounds that foods like scrambled eggs cooked on a griddle shared with pancakes, or french fries cooked in the same oil as chicken nuggets aren’t safe, or that they could wake up the body’s anti-gluten army and make the next several days miserable. But that dastardly gluten is teeny tiny, and it likes to stick around, and so how could a gluten free bun toasted on the same surface as its gluten-laden counterpart not come into contact with the stuff? Even the most minute amount can hurt people who are sensitive to it. Not just, like, cause a little tummy ache, but actually damage the body and incite an array of problems that make a simple tummy ache seem preferable.
I still don’t understand it all, of course. I’m learning too, right along with you. But what I know is this: eating food prepared anywhere but our own kitchen is risky right now because my system is sensitive. (Blech.) Sure, there are many Celiac Friendly restaurants (and I am thankful for them), and I want to trust folks who do their best to provide menu items that really are gluten free. Bless them for the extra effort it takes to do such a service. But the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of restaurants are not friendly for gluten averse folks like me. It makes me sad and angry and frustrated and defeated we can’t just pile the Goobies in the car on a whim and head out to our favorite spot for a sloppy burger with a big ol’ mess of fries to celebrate an ordinary Friday night. It makes me even angrier that my limitations limit you, too, and that our kids are missing out on some of that stuff along the way as well.
We’re adapting, of course, because that’s what we must do if we’re going to survive, right? And besides, there are worse things in the world than cooking and eating at home. Like having bare cupboards. Or not having a home. Or not having a way to feed our family at all. Really, being able to cook food at home is a blessing, and not a bad thing. In fact, it really is the best thing for so many reasons, and I love most of those reasons, which I suppose I can even poke fun at ourselves every so often (Like when I said, We watched that little bunny scamper toward a bowl of what looked like amazing ice cream, and as you salivated, I said, “Now there’s something that would kill three out of the five of us,” and we laughed and laughed and laughed because it felt so true.)
So the next time you offer to bring home take out, please don’t be surprised if I say “No, thank you.” It won’t always be this way, and you really are my hero: your offer is almost as good as a break from cooking itself. I wish I could say yes with abandon, plop down on the couch, throw my feet up on the coffee table and let you serve me. (Wait a second–who says that can’t still happen? Don’t underestimate the power of a man in the kitchen. If I stash plenty of real gluten free (and dairy/casein free; and peanut/pine nut/sunflower seed free) foods in the freezer, sending you in to cook them might be sort of like take out, right? All you have to do is take it out of the freezer and heat it up.
Hm. Let’s try that.
Easy Oven Baked Meatballs, Two Ways (GF/DF/NF)
This recipe was born out of frustration that my kids loved meatballs, but they took a ot of time to make, and buying prepared gluten/dairy free convenience foods comes with trouble all its own. Pictured here are Italian Style Meatballs, perfect to drench with marinara sauce, but if spinach freaks your family out, leave it out or try the other, more basic version that follows, (which is delicious smothered in barbecue sauce). Either way, coconut flour is my favorite grain-free binder for this recipe because it adds body to the meatballs without too many added carbohydrates, plus it absorbs moisture like super sponges.
Ingredients for Italian Style Meatballs:
2 pounds ground turkey
1 pound frozen spinach, thawed, drained, and most moisture squeezed out
2 Tablespoons coconut flour
2 eggs, lightly whisked
4 teaspoons onion powder
4 teaspoons Italian Seasoning (or 2 teaspoons each dry oregano and dry basil)
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, or more to taste
Ingredients for Regular Meatballs:
2 pounds ground turkey
3 Tablespoons coconut flour
2 eggs, lightly whisked
1 Tablespoon onion powder
3 teaspoons dry parsley
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, or more to taste
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line two baking sheets with aluminum foil and spray with coconut oil non-stick spray.
Next, dump all the ingredients in a large mixing bowl and smush them together (don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty). Once the meat is thoroughly mixed up with the spinach and spices, wash those hands and get scooping, using a 2 T/ 1 1/2 inch scoop (which makes the job quick). Line those meatballs up like little soldiers, about 24 to a pan. Bake them as they are, or smooth them out a bit (like they are in the picture above) by rolling them gently between the palms of your hands. Either way works fine.
Pop the trays into the oven and bake for 15 minutes.
For the freezer: Let the meatballs cool, then plunk them into a two labeled gallon sized zip top bags (for two batches of 24 meatballs, each), or use one batch now and save one for later. Your call.
Well here we are again: it’s Tuesday at 1:30 in the afternoon and I still have no idea what we’re having for dinner.
I pulled out some ground turkey from the freezer last night in an attempt to get ahead start in today’s race toward dinnertime. We have gobs of zucchini in the fridge at the moment, and zoodles were sounding like a good idea to use them up. Except then I realized Addie has ballet this afternoon and we don’t typically get home until close to 5:00, and did I really think spiralizing zucchini was actually going to happen in those tense minutes leading up to dinner when the Goobies are literally clawing at each other, hungry and grumpy and pushing my patience to its ragged end?
But if we don’t do zoodles tonight, when will we? Plus, there are tons of those little green beauties in the crisper right now, and they will not keep for much longer. I keep putting them off, assuring them they’ll get their moment to shine as I opt instead to pull out the sugar snap peas and grape tomatoes for a vegetable side for the kids’ beloved (or loathed, perhaps) diet of leftovers.
This morning at breakfast we talked briefly about having some friends over for dinner because we haven’t seen them in ages. The Warriors have their season opener against the Spurs tonight, so it seemed fitting to invite these particular friends over to balance dinner plates on their laps and watch the Warriors do their thing right along with us because we did a lot of that last season with them. We ate things like homemade pizzas and salad with Mr. Cy’s now-legendary magic sauce in our living room after the kids hit the sack for the night. The idea of having zoodles during a Warriors game felt a little…boring.
When my panicked face met your gaze across the table this morning, I wasn’t trying to tell you “don’t invite them over!” I was picking a fight with myself over something as silly as zoodles. If I did go ahead and make them tonight, I would need to thaw another pound of ground turkey, and I might need to swing by and get more grape tomatoes for the Quattro Rosso Sauce that would go on top of the zoodles–or could I just use the half pint that are left and make up the difference with the sad little Roma tomato still waiting in the wings? But if I do thaw another pound of ground turkey, I will have to swing by the store later this week for another pound so I can still make Pumpkin Chili for Halloween (which is what the turkey in the freezer is earmarked for). And anyway, do I really want to go through all that fuss and make the zoodles today after ballet? I guess I could give the kids noodles instead of zoodles and do my best to get the zoodles made later, like after bedtime. But again, do we really want to eat zoodles when the Warriors make their regular season debut tonight?
It was in the midst of this internal madness that you asked, “Do you want me to just pick something up?”
Those words: music to my stressed out ears.
I’m not sure you will ever completely understand the spin that happens when you ask the simple question “What are we doing for dinner?” There is so much going on everyday that sometimes trying to figure out what to make for dinner pushes me over the edge. It’s not just about figuring out what sounds good to me on that particular day (although, sometimes it is). It’s also about negotiating what everyone else around here can and will eat (which aren’t always the same), what we have in our cupboards, what needs to be used, like, yesterday, and how much time I have to actuallycook something. On days like today, it all seemed like a little too much to handle, and I think you must have seen that.
I imagine you offered to grab take out tonight to quell the crazy. But I bet you’d also admit it was to say thank you for being such a stellar wife who does such nice things for you (likewatching basketball. Ahem.).
We haven’t decided yet if we’re having friends over for dinner tonight. We haven’t even landed on whether you are bringing home take out or not (although street tacos from Mexxi’s is really sounding fantastic right about now). I don’t know what to do about the zucchini that desperately need to be used up, and I’m not sure what I’ll be feeding the kids when we get home from ballet in just under three short hours. But what I do know, is that I’m not taking out another pound of ground turkey today, and at some point I’ll plop down on the couch to watch a game of basketball with you.